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Widening Blind Pass Road riles neighbors

(ran Beach, South, West editions)

Ed and Margaret Von Schondorf knew that the state owned the land up to the front wall of O'Malley's Liquor Bar when they bought the Irish pub on Blind Pass Road almost 20 years ago.

But they didn't know until they saw the plans last year that the Florida Department of Transportation wants to take nearly everything they own to widen Blind Pass Road from two to five lanes.

The $5-million road project, including sidewalks and bicycle paths, is currently planned to slice right down the middle of the bar, leaving almost nothing except the kitchen sink and the bathrooms.

Obviously, the couple is upset the road widening will end the business that put their two children through school and guaranteed a comfortable living. Worse, they live with uncertainty about how much the state will compensate them for their loss.

"We've been held hostage," Ed Von Schondorf said. "We can't sell our property now. We don't want to move for anybody. . . . As long as we're in limbo, we can't plan very well for the future."

"We've had a lot of sleepless nights," said his wife, Margaret, who is better known as "Monnie."

The Von Schondorfs are among numerous residents along Blind Pass Road between 75th Avenue and the bridge to Treasure Island who are trying to convince the City Commission to try to stop the road's widening.

The state declined Tuesday to release the names of the people who will lose land for the road, citing an exemption to state public records laws for the information.

Nor were state officials able to say how many people will be affected, although they currently estimate about 10 buildings might be taken, said DOT spokesman Ron Winter.

"The plans still aren't finalized," Winter said, "so the whole question of right of way acquisition is still very premature."

Regardless, the people who don't like the state's plans are making themselves known. About 60 residents showed up and urged the killing of the road widening at last week's City Commission meeting.

The residents said the project would ruin the residential character of their neighborhood.

They complained that children attending Gulf Beaches Elementary School and pedestrians walking to church at St. John Catholic Church would be endangered.

They yelled that the commission wasn't listening to what the people wanted.

Then they murmured skeptically as the new DOT project manager, Jack Freeman, tried to answer their questions.

Faced with angry constituents, the City Commission decided to review why the project, which has been on track for three years, is really necessary.

At the behest of his bosses, City Manager Carl Schwing has hired Tampa Bay Engineering to take another look at Blind Pass Road, then report back to the commission on May 19 about why a new, wider road is or isn't necessary.

Design of the road is already about 60 percent complete, Freeman said, and the state is preparing final plans so property owners who will lose land can be contacted later this year.

Freeman said the state is trying to minimize the amount of land that will be taken. Engineers are considering putting a needed retention pond on a vacant lot where the Beach Convalescent Center was recently demolished, in the 8000 block of Blind Pass. That could spare some homes currently slated for acquisition and demolition.

But, Freeman warned, any delay in the project now might jeopardize it from being completed by 2003 _ or ever.

"You can always stop it, but you stand a chance of losing the project completely," Freeman told the commission.

"Good!" someone yelled from the audience. Clapping hands punctuated the thought.

Commissioners Jim Myers and John Bailey both said the road widening to five lanes wasn't necessary, drawing more applause.

"We're in a no-growth situation," Myers said. "It seems to me to be overkill."

Myers said three lanes might have been a better choice rather than five.

"I'm mystified," Bailey said. "Somebody thinks we're going to grow like a weed. I'd like to know where we're going to grow."

Actually, by state and county standards, Blind Pass Road is already a horribly congested road. With an estimated 16,300 cars traveling the two-lane winding artery every day, Blind Pass Road gets an F, the lowest ranking.

If the project is necessary, Mayor Ron McKenney said, the city shouldn't risk losing it.

The issue of the road widening was raised during March elections, with some candidates calling it an enemy of the area that should be halted.

Unsuccessful commission candidates Nina Luse and Taso Papargiriou, who both have businesses on Blind Pass Road that will be affected by the project, made it part of their platforms. Candidate Stanley Cidlowski Jr. complained about it also.

But the winning candidates, Mayor McKenney and Commissioners Ward Friszolowski and John Phillips Jr., said during their campaigns that the project was probably too far along to be stopped now.

Friszolowski has stuck to that argument. When the city got the state to use toll funds from the Pinellas Bayway to widen Blind Pass Road in 1995, he said, there was little opposition.

"I don't see this as moving more people, but moving the same number of people, or maybe a small increase, a little bit more efficiently," he said.

But after getting an angry earful from residents in the neighborhood he represents, Phillips said he was taking a hard look at the issue.

"I was looking at Gulf Boulevard the other day, and I was just thinking, man, do we want that on Blind Pass Road?" Phillips said. "It's tough. I just hope more people give me their opinions."